Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
At the nipping end of this gripping World Cup quarter-final, the England players lay slumped on the floor, hands covering their faces, their hopes and dreams dashed for another four years. All losses hurt. But few will stay as long as this quarter-final defeat to France.
For 90 minutes, England clashed with the world champions. They were bold, they were imaginative. And, at times, it seemed as though all sorts of tantalizing possibilities were opening up after a Harry Kane penalty equalized Aurélien Tchouaméni’s first strike.
But in the final 15 minutes of impossible tension, Oliver Giroud gave France a 2-1 lead and then Kane fired a second penalty over the bar. No wonder the England captain was the first to be comforted afterwards by England manager Gareth Southgate.
Since England’s only World Cup triumph in 1966, their results in the knockout stages have followed a simple, repeating formula: they lose to the first power they face. And so it was this time. But there was no shame in it, given how they played.
Questions lingered about Southgate’s conservatism in the big games, when the stakes are so high that even a Vegas high roller could flinch. England had been one nil against Croatia in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, and again against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, only to lose ground and, eventually, the match. Not this time.
It was a sign of his confidence that he kept the same squad of players that beat Senegal in the round of 16, lined up in a 4-3-3 formation.
They were initially cautious and went behind after 17 minutes when Tchouaméni struck a bolt that went past Jordan Pickford from nearly 30 yards. It was what they deserved. But he also rocked England. They knew they had to move on. And their game was much better for it.
As France relaxed, England grew in confidence. France goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris had to be clever to clear a deflected shot from Kane and England also rejected a penalty claim from the VAR when Kane rushed down the right and appeared to have tripped outside the penalty area.
But early in the second half, Tchouameni put out his leg and brought down Saka. Kane stepped up, shot hard and folded, and England were level at 1-1.
The game was opening up, becoming looser and more erratic. But England were still giving at least as much as they had gotten with Saka and Kane forcing Lloris to save and Maguire razing the outpost with a header.
As the match entered the final 15 minutes, however, France found a second wind. They received ample warning when Giroud fired too close to Pickford from eight yards out. Moments later, the attacker scored.
At that point England had 12 minutes to salvage the World Cup. Yet almost immediately they were given a reprieve when Lucas Hernandez stormed Mason Mount to no avail and the VAR rightly ruled it a penalty. Had he scored, Kane would have not only tied the game at 2-2, but would have become England’s only all-time goalscorer.
This time, however, Kane couldn’t keep his cool and went over the bar.
France’s eyes are now turning to Morocco, whose coach Walid Regragui likened his side to Rocky Balboa after they swept Portugal 1-0. “I think we are becoming the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we are showing the world that you can achieve results even if you don’t have so much talent, so much quality, so much money,” he said.
That run here in Qatar is all the more remarkable as they were among the outsiders at the start of the tournament, while Regragui has only been in charge since August.
England, meanwhile, will have to put the pieces back together. It will be small consolation that they pushed the world champions all the way.